I grew up in St. Louis and started going to Cardinals games around age 5. Usually I’d go with my father, sometimes with my grandfather. It was the 70s, the Cards had tons of hitting, but no pitching, and they finished 3rd or 4th every year. When I was 13, that mediocrity suddenly transformed into an exciting, speed and defense driven, small-ball-oriented team that won the World Series in 1982. While I was in high school, this team, managed by Whitey Herzog, was even further built for speed, and they won the NL pennant two more times, in ’85 and ’87, though they lost the WS each of those years.
My baseball heroes were Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Tommy Herr, Jack Clark, Bob Forsch, John Tudor, and Willie McGee, to name a few. By the time I started college, the Cards were as deeply embedded in my sense of identity as anything else that had been a consistent force throughout my childhood. Whether I liked it or not, I was a die-hard fan, and I followed the team daily. I still do.
When the Cards won the NL pennant in 2004 (only to be swept in the WS by the miracle Red Sox of that year), my interest in the team was re-ignited. And since then it’s been a fun ride for Redbirds fans, no doubt. Between 2004 and 2014, St. Louis has won 4 NL pennants, 2 World Series, and has made the post-season almost every year. The Cards currently have the best record in all of baseball, by quite a margin, and they’re locks to be in the post-season once again.
Pretty much the one thing that could sour my child-like devotion to the Redbirds would be if, say, the star player of the team and the manager went to a huge Glenn Beck rally and gave speeches and received awards from him. Which is exactly what happened in August 2010.
Along with the Tea Party politics, there’s also a well-reported strong religious culture of conservative Christianity that is a defining element of the organization’s identity. Veteran sports Journalist Rob Rains recently published a book about this, Intentional Walk: An Inside Look at the Faith That Drives the St. Louis Cardinals, which highlights the conservative evangelical Christian faith of manager Mike Matheny and several of the Cards star players. According to a 2013 article in a conservative Christian magazine, team Bible study and prayer meetings are more common on the Cards than most other teams, and Christian symbols are often etched into the pitcher’s mound at Busch stadium, though the article didn’t say by whom.
Back to the Tea Party elements, it’s worth noting that after the Cards’ remarkable 2011 World Series win, three notable team members skipped the customary visit to the White House to be congratulated by President Obama – Pujols, LaRussa, and Wainwright. None of them publicly cited political reasons, but there’s a lot of suspicion. For me, as a religious progressive and a huge Obama supporter, this has been really painful to stomach.
I realize the Cardinals aren’t the only franchise in MLB with a strong conservative Christian culture on the field and in the organization. Baseball is a sport that draws a large proportion of its players from the South and from communities where competitive kids sports are huge, and there are a lot of conservative Christians in those parts of the country. Furthermore, a large number of the Latin American players come from either Catholic or evangelical Protestant communities, so it’s not that surprising that there are ties of shared faith and friendship that serve to bind players to each other. MLB is not like the NFL, where African-American Muslims have a visible presence on many teams, which I think must force that league to be a bit more religiously pluralistic in their professional culture.
One last anecdote: last week the Cards were playing the Pirates, and I wanted to hear how Pittsburgh’s radio announcers sounded, so I listened in. Right away I heard them promote “Faith Day” at the ball-park, in which the Pirates’ current manager, Clint Hurdle, and other “Pirate favorites” will speak about the role that faith plays in their lives after the game. The Cards have a similar thing: “Christian Day” at the ballpark. Of course, the Cards also have “Jewish Community Day,” and their lead broadcaster, Mike Shannon, promoted it last month in a broadcast by saying that the first 25,000 fans arriving at the ballpark that day would receive a free, St. Louis Cardinals knitted Yamaha.” I shit you not.
Anyway, just wanted to get this off my chest. It’s not that I would deny members of the Cards the right to find their own spiritual bliss, nor do I believe that any religion is better than any other religion. It’s the proselytizing and the negative judgments aimed at non-Christians, LGBT folks, and the scriptural literalism that all make me uneasy, especially from my baseball team. I just want my baseball fan stuff to be about baseball. But these issues have left me with an ambivalence that I don’t quite know how to process.